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Knowledge isn’t power

Dr Tina Karme explores the complexity of modern leadership, and how different styles can enable or disable progress
Dr Tina Karme

This article first appeared in our World Environment Day issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 05 June 2024. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Leadership is about to get even more uncomfortable: today’s leaders face a fast-changing world where decisions are made with limited information, especially about the future.

‘Over 4.9 million research articles published on Google Scholar contain the keyword ‘sustainability’,’ says Dr Tina Karme; ‘there is no chance anyone can digest that amount of information.’

For Tina the myth of the leader at the top of an organisation having all the answers, insight and knowledge is broken – and that is not all.

Tina believes the whole concept of ‘leaders and followers’ is being challenged by a shift towards influencing and a reframing of leadership as a process.

Human leadership

The amount of information available is increasing all the time, and we have a limited ability to process it.

‘AI will beat us in being able to digest and sort through the 4.9 million academic articles on sustainability’, Tina says. ‘Naturally, a leader could and should use AI to digest the overflow of information and knowledge, but if you think leadership is about digesting the most books, articles and other forms of information, then I think you are radically off track. If you act and think like a machine, machines will replace you.’

AI presents a very real challenge to the belief that those who hold knowledge hold power. We’re left to wonder what being human – and an effective human leader – actually means.

‘Research has been conducted to discover which leaders people look up to’, Tina shares. ‘In this list, we frequently hear names like Gandhi and Mandela, and many of the traits that inspire respect are very human at their core. What puzzles me is that despite this, leaders continue to overemphasise the role of power. Now that knowledge is freely available, leadership needs to return to its core – it should be about not knowing but finding the ways to discover the solutions, about understanding and caring, about being human – with all the beauty that comes with it. This is how leaders will succeed in navigating complexity.’

Learning to let go

Older, linear forms of leadership are limited in their ability to deal with the complex issues we face today. The overuse of natural resources, business impacts on global warming and human rights issues are just some of the areas that often require rapid decision-making on the basis of multiple unknowns.

Patterns must be allowed to unfold from a holistic approach with input from many stakeholders.

For Tina this shift in leadership style, and the movement away from leaders being ‘the ones with all the answers and knowledge’, will also require ‘a lot of unlearning’.

‘We can only develop if we can unlearn habits and models – and even let go of knowledge that no longer serves us’, she shares. ‘Leaders need to allow themselves intelligent failure; that is when you learn along the way. All failure is not good, but failure that aims to discover new solutions and pathways is good, and we need more of that.’

Tina believes we must approach complex situations with a sense of curiosity and a willingness to learn along the way. ‘There are multiple unknowns, and successful leaders must learn to deal with them as they go along. We need to lead with good-quality questions where solutions can be discovered. This is very different from how many view leadership today.’

Alternative leadership

For Tina, leaders, researchers, governments and businesses must rethink their approaches and be involved in narratives and discourses that are in the making.

‘If you do it through complex, fact-based reports rather than engaging with your audience in a way that supports their sensemaking process, you will lose the audience, and they will fill in the blanks with any information available that they can make sense of’, Tina warns.

The rise of disinformation and echo chambers make it more vital than ever for leaders to be actively involved in the sensemaking process of societies, individuals and groups.

For Tina this requires strength, wisdom, humbleness and letting go of ego, hierarchy and the ‘know-it-all’ attitude.

‘Leaders, especially in business, have, through globalisation, become separate from environment and society’, Tina explains. ‘In the Nordics, many leaders are still highly integrated into society and the environment. The CEO’s child might be best friends at school with a root-level employee’s child. I think this is a good thing, as we also have more acceptance for leaders making mistakes as part of a learning and development journey.’

While Tina acknowledges the Nordic Leadership style is no silver bullet, it is certainly a starting point to inspire alternative leadership approaches.

‘This is just one alternative take on leadership’, Tina says. ‘However, I am convinced of the importance of recognising and appreciating ego but not allowing it in the driver’s seat. Bringing humanity back into leadership will take us a long way, and if we can be compassionate and wise rather than simply knowledgeable, I think a very different form of leadership will emerge.’

ABOUT TINA KARME

Tina Karme is a Doctor of Business Administration with a Master of Science (M.Sc) degree from Finland in Business Management and a M.Sc from the UN Institute of Training and Research collaboration programme with Franklin University Switzerland on International Management and Sustainability.

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